Coming to the aid of a party divided

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 May, 2011, 12:00am


For anyone interested in mainland politics, recent developments have made for both fascinating and puzzling reading.

It is fascinating because the signs of division within the Communist Party over its future direction and its history are becoming increasingly public in the run-up to the 90th anniversary of the party in July and, more importantly, to a significant party congress to approve top leadership changes scheduled for the autumn of next year.

So-called conservatives and moderates are engaging delicately in the state media - but they are openly slugging it out and trading barbs in internet chat rooms and on blogs. To top it off, the political rumour mill is in overdrive, churning out all kinds of comments that highlight divisions within the party and create more confusion.

This has come at a time when the mainland's social fabric is being stretched to the limit, demonstrated by the ongoing massive protests against social injustices seen in the normally staid Inner Mongolia and in last week's suicide bombing in Jiangxi .

But what do those developments mean? And should overseas investors be concerned?

Making sense of the mainland's notoriously opaque politics is always difficult, but the new developments suggest the party is undergoing a painstaking, intense search for ways to reshape itself and consolidate its grip on the world's second-largest economy. They also signal changes in mainland politics that require outsiders to read about it in a new light.

Over the past year, the outside world has been fascinated by Premier Wen Jiabao's one-man attempt, among top mainland leaders, to preach political reforms as a sure sign of political division within the party leadership.

Indeed, following Wen's many calls for political restructuring, other leaders, including National People's Congress Chairman Wu Bangguo and the party's mouthpiece, the People's Daily, have vowed that the mainland will never go down the road of westernised democracy - apparently aimed at rebuking Wen.

But the fact that Wen can continue to be the lone voice against the odds is very notable and should be seen as a positive development. As some seasoned analysts have pointed out, the mainland's politics have gradually changed from the era of paramount leaders such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping .

During those years, the leadership could suppress any dissenting views to present a united front. But any student of the party's history will see that, just like any political party in the world, the Communist Party always has the right and the left, the hardliners and the liberals, fighting it out over views and issues. The difference now is that political evolution has enabled politicians like Wen to have more flexibility to air views contrary to the consensus of the leadership without suffering ill effects to their careers.

Internet chatrooms and blogs have also helped in having those different views made public. But this also means that the outside world should not come to the hasty conclusion that Wen's lone voice signals serious trouble for the party.

While opinions vary as to why Wen has spoken out as he has, his views clearly represent the party liberals who strongly believe that a political restructuring is urgently needed to keep the party in power. After all, liberals and hardliners alike want to see the party consolidate its grip, even if they may disagree on how to achieve that goal.

The mainland is entering its own political cycle, culminating in the party's 18th congress, with the current leadership under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen giving way to new leaders.

It helps outsiders make sense of the mainland's political manoeuvring if they can apply some of the political electioneering seen in Western countries.

A good example is Bo Xilai, the Chongqing party secretary, who is reviving old-fashioned Communist Party propaganda by encouraging residents to sing 'red songs' and read Maoist classics, evoking memories of the politically charged years under Mao.

While the country's leftists have hailed Bo as a hero and their standard-bearer, few analysts on the mainland believe that Bo, an English speaker whose son was educated at Oxford and Harvard, wants to return to the Mao years.

In fact Bo, a smart politician who was trained in journalism, is claiming political heritage and rallying political support for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee in the leadership change next year. Bo's father, Bo Yibo, was one of the revolutionary veterans who founded the People's Republic.

Perhaps outsiders can find some resemblance to the US presidential elections, in which the challenging candidate, Republican or Democrat, usually slams the sitting president for his cosy relationship with China. But even if the opposition wins, engagement with China remains a top priority. After all, commercial interests usually trump political talk.